People have always told me that Pinot Noir is a tricky grape to get right – that sometimes it’s great and sometimes rather less than great. While that may be largely true throughout the world, I would say it’s a grape that the Swiss seems to have mastered. They grow quite a lot of it in Switzerland (it’s their most planted grape) and I’ve yet to have a glass of Swiss Pinot Noir that I didn’t enjoy.
Unfortunately the same can’t be said for Chasselas which is Switzerland’s second most planted grape. Since I got here I have had some okay glasses of Chasselas, the occasional very nice glass of Chasselas and an awful lot of very very bad glasses of Chasselas – some of which I’ve actually not been able to finish they were that bad. As a result I have completely given up ordering Chasselas when I’m out, the chances of getting something awful are just too high!
Chasselas is called Gutedel in the German speaking cantons and Fendant when it’s produced in Valais (where it also sometimes also has a slight sparkle). Unfortunately the name change or the slight hint of fizz doesn’t seem to significantly improve your chances of getting a drink you can enjoy. It’s just worth noting the other names so you don’t accidentally order it!
One of the reasons for the high degree of variability might be to do with the fact the wine very strongly reflects and takes on the characteristics of the terroir where it was grown. Chasslas grown in one area will taste very different to that from another. This would explain why some are floral, some fruity and some are very mineral.
However it doesn’t explain why so many are just plain bad. That probably has more to do with the fact that, in order to provide plenty of cheap wine for workers, an awful lot of Swiss Chasselas used to be grown for quantity rather than quality. While some vineyards are now trying to produce better quality wine I suspect that some others are still going for the quantity method.
In an attempt to locate a couple of better examples for this post I decided to opt for some medal winning varieties. I know that studies have shown that the awarding of medals can be a bit arbitrary, but I figure if a bottle has a medal at least one person has enjoyed it so hopefully it’s at least drinkable.
First up was a Chasselas from Chateau de Duillier which had won a “best of Swiss wine” award. The Chateau is just above Nyon in Vaud and I found this 50cl bottle in Nyon itself for CHF9.90 in L’Horloge.
This wine was a pale straw/hay colour with an almost brown honeyish hint to it. There were also a few bubbles lurking at the bottom of the glass although I couldn’t feel these on my tongue at all when I drank the wine. It has a light crisp citrus nose with some chemical notes.
Taste wise it was rich and full of mineral and earthy flavours with only a small amount of fruit. Consumed by itself if was a bit too acidic for my taste and that was the main thing that came across. The Swiss always recommend you drink Chasselas if you are going to have a fondue or raclette. I opted for fondue and the strong acidity did help with the richness of the cheese however even the acid taste was too overpowering for me.
Certainly not the worst Chasselas I’ve ever had but not something I would buy again in a hurry.
A few days later I tried a different bottle of Chasselas and this was a very different creature. Called L’Arquebuse it’s from Bonvillars near Neuchâtel and had won a Terravin Vaud gold medal which they are very proud of. I bought a 75cl bottle in Coop for CHF 9.90.
It was also a pale straw colour but a bit more golden that the first bottle. The nose had a lot of tropical fruit; pineapple and passion fruit, which had an almost fake candy like quality to them rather than fresh fruit.
In the mouth however there was no fruit at all. It was extremely dry, short and mineral. I hesitate to say this because I don’t mean to imply that I didn’t like it, but it was a bit like licking a rock! I don’t think I’ve ever encountered something with so much mineral and such a complete lack of fruit flavour. It wasn’t an unpleased experience though, just a surprising one. There was also almost no aftertaste – one hit of rock and then nothing – very unusual.
There was still plenty of acidity, but in this case it didn’t overpower. I was happy to drink it both by itself and with the mussels that I was having for tea that evening. I think this was a really interesting wine and I’ve love to get it again and share it with some other people to see just what they make of it!
So there you go – Chasselas – hit and miss but never boring!